In the medieval period in Europe, churches and abbeys vied to own the body parts of saints who had died. Bones, skin, blood, clothes – anything to do with a famous saint could make or break the success of a holy place. It was big business, attracting all those pilgrims to your church because you had the arm bone of Saint so-and-so!
The Templars and the relics of saints
The Templars were as much, if not more, in to relics as all good Christians of the Middle Ages. They had a penchant for the brutally martyred variety of saint. Tied to a wheel and rolled down a hill or cut to pieces in the arena – that was the kind of saint a Templar wanted a bone from.
The Knights Templar were also noted for their veneration of female saints like Euphemia and Barbara. Even though the Templars were an all boys’ club (with some exceptions I won’t detail here), they nevertheless seem to have respected and honoured holy women.
Bones were not the only relics of saints – body tissue too!
But it’s often forgotten that bones were not the only medieval relics of saints. Bamber Gascoigne in his book ‘The Christians’ details St Elizabeth of Hungary lying serenely in state after her death.
Around her, mourners prayed fervently for hours on end. Hmmm…take a closer look if you will. Because said mourners were actually busily clipping off her hair, nails and according to Bamber – her nipples!! All taken away to be venerated in churches all over Christendom.
The intrepid Bishop of Lincoln was shown a bone of Mary Magdalene on his travels and while nobody was looking, bit a fragment off and walked tight lipped back to a very grateful Lincoln.
READ MORE: The walking dead in the Middle Ages
How to get relics of Jesus?
Jesus presented a problem to relic hunters of the Middle Ages having ascended bodily in to heaven. No corpse in the tomb if you recall. Bamber describes how the medieval mind got round this little conundrum. Jesus must have left fingernails, his own tears, blood, milk teeth and….wait for it…his foreskin from the circumcision. Oh no, surely not. Oh yes, I’m afraid so! Indeed, there were several foreskins of Jesus doing a brisk trade as Gothic cathedrals soared upwards.
I’m always amused by the twig from the Burning Bush and a crumb from the Last Supper. Years ago, I went with a friend to Prague who, unlike me, had not been subject to a Roman Catholic upbringing. I had to explain that yes, the little house in the middle of a cloister really was Mary’s house transported brick by brick from the Holy Land overnight by a team of very obliging and presumably muscular angels. He didn’t get it.
Very strange relics of saints
Closer to our own time, the church has still shown an ability to collect the most bizarre bits of saints. Teresa of Avila can be venerated by worshiping the sole of her sandal, a phial of her blood or a stick she used to walk with. Saint John Vianney (died 1859) is preserved, much like Lenin, in a casket. He used to sleep two hours a night and was visited frequently by the devil.
The True Cross is the relic that has always intrigued me. There’s a lot of fragments of the True Cross around. I’m inclined to think that if they were all put together, then Jesus was crucified on a California Redwood.